A Pastoral Reflection on Racism

I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.
– Ezekiel 37:5

I can’t breathe.

These were the final words of George Floyd, who was murdered at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis. The same words were uttered by other persons of color who died of asphyxiation at the hands of police. The words have been adopted by the Black Lives Matter movement and are chanted by protestors in the U.S. and beyond in their demand for racial justice. The Pension Boards of the United Church of Christ joins in that demand; we condemn racism in all of its forms and commit ourselves to action.

I can’t breathe.

Racism is America’s original sin. Its roots go back four centuries to the year 1619 when enslaved Africans were brought to the English colony of Virginia. Ever since, the dream of liberty and justice for all has been smothered and stifled for people of color. At present, racial injustice has taken forms including police brutality, racially-biased 911 calls, mass incarceration, and the suppression of voting rights for communities of color. Racism is also manifested in the COVID-19 pandemic that disproportionately impacts black and brown communities because of the persistence of systemic inequalities in our society.

We at the Pension Boards are grateful for the leadership shown by the national setting of the United Church of Christ in the battle against racism. We are in solidarity with our national officers whose letter, Lynching in America, calls us to bolster our courage, to face this evil head on, and to cast it from our collective being.

We stand with the leadership of UCC Conferences that raise their voices for justice and stand against the perpetuation of violence. Minnesota Conference Minister Shari Prestemon challenges the church: “In the name of Jesus Christ, in whose name we worship, we must say ‘no more.’ We must call for change and demand justice. We must be the change we say we want.”

We stand with local church leaders in communities across the nation in their bold and prophetic witness. We believe that the United Church of Christ’s long history of prophetic witness for racial justice uniquely positions us to address the crisis before us. That witness is desperately needed now.

I can’t breathe.

Breath is needed to form words, but words aren’t enough. The Pension Boards lives at the intersection of faith and finance, and our faith calls us not merely to words but also to actions that advance a racial justice agenda. Over 50 years ago, we were among the founding members of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR), which was born in the struggle for racial justice in apartheid South Africa. Today, fully one-third of our corporate engagements are for the sake of diversity and inclusion.

Our Ministers’ Financial Vitality Initiative (MFVI) was launched in 2017 specifically in response to the financial needs of underrepresented clergy in the UCC, including clergy of color. Our investment department not only does well in terms of financial performance, it also does good for people and creation as measured by environmental, social, and governance criteria. And younger pastors in our Next Generation Leadership Initiative (NGLI) are serving on the front lines of ministry, using the leadership skills honed in the program in the service of justice.

These actions are good, but they are not sufficient. Our calling to justice isn’t new, but it must be renewed.

I can’t breathe.

The Hebrew scriptures associate breath with life. Breath represents not only the vivification of individual bodies, but also the invigoration of communities with justice, integrity, and respect.

New life is being breathed into the Pension Boards through a process of cultural transformation that is informed by a cross-functional working team drawn from all levels, departments, and roles in the organization. The commitment and leadership of the working team ensures that implementation will be both internal among staff and trustees, and external with our members, the broader church, and across the world. We will develop accountability standards in how we hire, develop, promote, and retain our staff, while ensuring greater diversity, inclusion, and equity in our policies and programs. These commitments must be reflected on all levels, including ongoing efforts addressing the composition of our executive staff and trustees.

The cultural transformation process includes engaging an external facilitator to work with us in a series of restorative racial justice sessions. We are gifted with an ethnically and racially diverse staff, and as an organization we recognize the need to do additional listening to voices within the Pension Boards. Our commitment is not only to listen to each other, but also to learn from one another. That listening and learning will inform necessary change, stimulate action, and lay the groundwork for accountability as we take next steps.

We will not work in isolation but reaffirm our covenant with other settings of the UCC as well as with our ecumenical, interfaith, and secular partners. We commit ourselves to work together, each according to our own resources and functions, to fulfill our collective vision of a just world for all.

I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.

For four centuries, racism has smothered hopes of justice and equity in the land that proclaims liberty and justice for all. In cities all across America people have taken to the streets in peaceful protest of racial injustice. Many have been choked by tear gas and had lungs burned by pepper spray, but voices have not been silenced. The dream held so dear for so long by so many lives on. Will it at last become reality? The answer is embedded in the actions we collectively take now. In word and deed, the Pension Boards commits itself to Ezekiel’s vision of breath and life.